A conceptual artist’s manifesto as told by Alexander Wainwright, Britain’s finest landscape artist.
My friend Charles said, “Alex? Aren’t you walking rather quickly? I’m getting winded just trying to keep up with you!”
Charles has been accompanying me on these strolls along the Victoria Embankment for some evenings.
I stopped and said, “So sorry! I’m a bit out of sorts tonight, thinking about another artist–perhaps you’ve heard of him–Rinaldo, the conceptual artist.”
My friend replied, ”Hmmm…no, the name doesn’t ring a bell, I’m afraid.”
“Consider yourself lucky then!”
“You’re obviously quite annoyed with him.”
“And with good reason. He’s been a thorn in my side for years!”
He chuckled as he lit his pipe. “Well Alex, are you going to tell me your story? It sounds like one with many dark twists and turns into…?” He gave me a wry smile.
This is a story I’ve rarely told. But some simmering anger put me in the mood tonight. My author, Mary E. Martin has tossed me into some hellish situations, all the while asking me the most difficult questions! It’s quite all right to read The Trilogy of Remembrance [The Drawing Lesson, The Fate of Pryde and Night Crossing]. Reading is one thing–living the events in those novels is quite another! If you think that third title sounds ominous, it is.
I gazed at The Tate Modern Gallery across from us on the south bank of the Thames, which had originally the purpose of a power generating station. My own mind marched the vivid details of the disastrous encounter with Rinaldo before me in a snidely accusatory fashion.
My friend, Charles, was not to blame for my bad mood. In fact he seemed eager to lend an ear.
I said, “It’s quite a long story beginning with a cocktail reception at the Tate some time ago. Rinaldo and I were two of five artists short-listed for the Turner Prize offered by the gallery each year. Usually it is given to a conceptual artist although any contemporary artist may enter.”
As his entry, Rinaldo had constructed a ditch down the middle of the Turbine Room of the gallery. It started out looking like a massive crack in the floor. The Destiny of War—he called it. Ridiculous for an artist! On both sides of this trench, with its barbwire fence, were flung piles old clothing, children’s toys—guns, model tanks, knives and swords—all spattered with red paint. No doubt, he intended to create the effect of a blood bath. I found one dismembered doll to be a particularly tasteless touch. In my opinion, the message of this so-called piece of conceptual art was both obvious and trite. Doesn’t everyone understand that war is pointless and stupid?
My friend chuckled again. “I can see why you’re angry! You paint beautiful moonlit scenes which are utterly sublime. The light is magnificent…just like glimpsing the beyond! To be compared with his nonsense leaves one gasping for sanity.”
“Why thank you! So very kind of you.” As an artist, I cannot tolerate Rinaldo’s nonsense. I’m not usually so bad-tempered, but we got into a nasty and very public spat that night.
Rarely am I quite so vindictive but, at this reception, I actually tried to publicly humiliate Rinaldo by saying, Rarely am I quite so “Ladies and gentleman, if conceptual art places the idea first and foremost, let us judge such a work in its own terms. Is Rinaldo’s idea original, novel, controversial or at least interesting? Who does not know that hatred is part of human nature and leads to the most destructive forms of warfare? Where is the new idea?” And then I said, “Rinaldo should enlighten us. Why is his concept original or thought provoking?”
“That doesn’t sound so horrible,” my friend said.”In fact, it sounds quite intelligent.”
“Well…I confess I was baiting him. But how can he seriously claim to be even a conceptual artist?”
“What did he do?”
“Rinaldo is seldom at a loss for words. He always has a sharp retort, but that night he could think of nothing to say and so, he stormed out of the gallery in front of this rather sizeable crowd.”
My friend shrugged.
I said, “I’m not usually so ill tempered. But I’d had just about enough of the man and his childish pranks. However, I didn’t realize I was making a true enemy of him. An artist must be careful about such things.”
“That sounds like yet another story.”
“Yes, that’s the one my author doesn’t know about.”
“Listen Alex, I do hope all of this is written down somewhere.”
“Oh indeed! The entire scene at the Tate Modern is in The Drawing Lesson which you can find right here.
“But can you believe it? The man has played so many stupid, mindless tricks or pranks on me just to mock me and my art.” I found myself getting breathless. “Once he led me on a ridiculous hunt for him throughout Venice and capped it off with making a video again designed to denigrate my work! It’s gone viral on the internet. Here! You can see it on my phone.”
“On top of it all and just to insult me further, the video is such a crude, slapdash effort on his part! He has the nerve to call it art!”
I pounded my fist on a nearby statue of some war hero. “And…you’ll see in the video that he has scribbled glasses and a goatee on a photograph of me. He thinks it’s clever to imitate the artist Marcel Duchamp.”
My friend looked at me blankly.
“Duchamp is the artist considered to be the grandfather of conceptual art. His notoriety comes from a stupid idea of drawing a moustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa!
My friend watched the film clip and then said, “Obviously Alex, you’ve gotten under his skin. Keep up the good work.”
“So,” I said, “That’s why I treated him so meanly at the Tate Modern. I wonder what my author would say? She seems to think I have no other life except what she creates for me. But actually, I do have a life all to my own.
My friend gave me a curious glance. “Alex! Are you really a character in a novel?”
“Oh yes but as you can see, I stand before you in the flesh and blood.”
“Good night, Alex.” He shook my hand and, with a shake of his head, walked away.
I called after him,”Another evening?”
He did not answer but simply waved at me over his shoulder.
I turned to head back to my studio which overlooks the Embankment. From the Tate Modern, you can see St. Paul’s Cathedral designed by the architect, Christoper Wren rising up in defiance of the Tate Modern. What an incredible celebration of beauty and harmony! What would Wren make of the present day irreparable divide in the art world?